Workforce Shortage Hits Portage, Too

Workforce Shortage Hits Portage, Too
by Marianne Hanson, Executive Director, Portage Area Chamber of Commerce
(The following article appeared in the Spring 2019 Wisconsin Business Voice) 

Portage serves as the county seat for Columbia County and has a population of just over 10,000 people. We are located about 30 minutes north of Madison, right along the Interstate 39/90/94 corridor. Even though some might categorize Portage as rural, we have very similar struggles to communities both big and small. One of the most vexing is trying to fill our workforce needs. Not only with the quantity of workers, but quality.
Almost every manufacturing facility in our business park has expanded in the past three years – some multiple times – in terms of both their physical facility and employment. We will soon see a new industry come into our business park. A vacated big box building is going to be occupied this spring. Our downtown is undergoing a renaissance with many business owners investing in upgrades to their facades.

We are seeing growth, but we do have our struggles like other communities, particularly in numbers of workers a to fill open positions. Declining rural school enrollments, indeed, declining rural populations, have a direct effect on our potential pool of workers. Lack of public transportation outside our city caps worker quantity. We are also contending with the increase in drug use, especially opioids in our rural areas. Not to mention making sure we have people to cover our vital services such as fire, police and EMT’s.

When our businesses look to recruit, we need to ask ourselves not only how do we attract workers, but how are we going to retain them? Employers in rural areas need to be a little more creative. They need to provide not only great salary options, but other incentives in employment packages to attract and keep a quality workforce.

Can we compete with metropolitan areas for workforce? I think we can. In fact, we are even persuading workers to move to our rural communities. We dangle the offers of affordable housing, low crime, low taxes, good healthcare, safe schools and parks…and a commute that offers far less congestion.

Things are progressing in Portage. As we cut through these rural challenges, bright spots abound. Recently, two local dentists have had their adult children come back to Portage after graduation to invest in their family business. We are seeing younger people returning to the area to raise their family and start businesses in our community.

Talent attraction is tough and will continue to be tough, but as a rural community we need to stand out above the rest and face our challenges head on to ensure growth.

Brad Conrad
graphics@portagewi.com